Posts by Meghan Gelardi Holmes
I started this blog with a post called “The Civic Museum.” Civic engagement – it’s the lifeblood of a new vanguard of museums. These museums, big and small, are engaging with their communities on the issues that matter to them. They are finding new and creative ways to foster dialogue and reinforce relationships between people.
As community engagement becomes part of the basic mission of a museum, as it has at any increasing number of institutions, I wonder what’s on the horizon.
"The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio hosts a community protest."
Recently, I attended a conference where Graciela Sanchez from the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio talked about her work reclaiming the history of the Tejano community on the west side of the city. The Center is a “multi-issue cultural center;” they work to restore connections between the community and their history through community arts projects, historic preservation, and political advocacy. What Sanchez expressed so strikingly was that the historical pieces of the Center’s mission were secondary to the larger goal of advocating for their community and changing the culture of marginalization. History is one tool in their toolbox.
The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center isn’t a museum, but it’s easy to imagine museums taking on similar roles in their communities. Some already have. In October, a group of museums and gardens in Pittsburgh hosted a symposium, “Feeding the Spirit: Museums, Food, and Community.” They explored the ways in which smart, sustainable food choices could be central to the museum’s mission whether it’s through the café of the interpretation. These institions are joining in First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, doing their part to promote healthy eating and active lifestyles among children and families. In fact, AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums has as their slogan “…because museums can change the world.”
When does civic engagement become activism? In most institutions, historic interpretation or artistic appreciation is still at the center of the mission. In the future, will these sites turn that balance on its head? What might it mean for museums – places which hold unique positions in the public trust – to advocate for certain constituencies? What is the activist museum and how should it function?
This time of year, the Fairmount neighborhood in Philadelphia is dominated by Eastern State Penitentiary. The prison is always a strong presence, but when thoughts turn to ghosts and things that go bump in the night, those tall walls loom ominous and foreboding. The site does a great job of using this to their advantage; their popular haunted house, “Terror Behind the Walls,” turns 20 this year. I’m easily scared, so I avoid Eastern State around Halloween. Nonetheless, it is one of my favorite historic sites on the East Coast – absolutely worth it, whether you decide to go for the thrills or the rest of the tour.
Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 to much fanfare. It was the first true penitentiary, designed to encourage remorse and repentance in the criminals it housed. From the very beginning, it was a unique institution; officials from across Europe and the United States came to see its distinctive architectural plan and individual cells built to house prisoners in solitary confinement. Today, you can wander through the long corridors and peek into the same cells, guided by an audio tour recorded by Steve Buscemi. (Creepily appropriate, right?) The site isn’t fully restored, and there is something evocative, haunting, about the crumbling walls and remnants of jail cell artifacts.
"A cell on the oldest block at Eastern State Penitentiary."
The prison officially closed in 1971. Over the course of its history, it held thousands of prisoners in many different kinds of prison environments. (Al Capone spent eight months at Eastern State; his luxury cell is a popular stop on the tour.) Although prison sites regularly draw tourists – think Alcatraz – Eastern State Penitentiary is unique because of the sheer length of time it was in operation. Visitors begin by contemplating the prison experience in the 19th century; the Pennsylvania System, piloted at Eastern State, focused on solitary confinement, labor, and exercise as the path to reforming inmates. Later on the tour, visitors come face to face with the 20th century: the fully mechanized death row cellblock is a stark example of changing attitudes towards criminals.
And so, Eastern State Penitentiary explores its past within a larger context of punishment and imprisonment. The prison population in America is growing exponentially and inequitably, and capital punishment remains a hot-button issue. Yet there are few forums in which to explore where we’ve come from and where we are going. What is our responsibility to those who break the law? Eastern State Penitentiary, by virtue of its own history, has an important role to play in this discussion. Historic sites are valuable because they help us understand important topics by historicizing them, by providing the perspective of the past, and by tracing that trajectory into our own future.
Eastern State Penitentiary
2027 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19130
“Terror Behind the Walls,” September 23 through November 12
Future-casting. There’s an activity often met with trepidation by historians. While history might inform the present, it isn’t a tool for predicting the future. Or is it? At a conference last month, held by the UMass-Amherst Public History program on the occasion of their 25th anniversary, one presenter urged public historians to embrace their role in forecasting the future.
At first blush, it’s hard to imagine what this role might look like. But if we think specifically about museums, all of the necessary tools are in place. Museums are spaces where we gather information about the past, with art and artifacts and interpretation, and put that information squarely in the context of the present. We ask our visitors to share their ideas about how the past and the present connect. It is only natural that we throw suppositions about the future into that mix.
The National Building Museum in Washington, DC is doing exactly that. Last fall, they launched the Intelligent Cities project, with support from Time Magazine and IBM. They’ve jumped headfirst into some future-casting about our homes and our communities.
With the Intelligent Citiesinitiative, the museum is hoping to discover something about how we live in cities now as a way to explore where we want to be in the future. The museum has been gathering community input on their website, through polls and online video submissions, about how people make decisions about where they live. The website is organized around six major topics, moving outward in size from “The Home” all the way to “The Country.”
"The Space-Time-Money Continuum, by curator Susan Piedmont-Palladino (National Building Museum)."
Accompanying infographics transmit the changing nature of cities in sharp, fresh ways. The new “Intelligent City” might take better account of fuel in choosing transport methods, or child obesity in choosing how far to live from the nearest elementary school.
Part of the innovative nature of this project comes from the museum’s belief that all of us have something to offer on this topic. National Building Museum president and executive director Chase W. Rynd says, “Technology and access to information has reached a point where non-professionals can generate data and think deeply about where they live. Through Intelligent Cities, we have the means to share their viewpoints with experts in the design and building industries so that there is a true give and take between constituencies.” The eventual result of the project will be an exhibition in 2013, but as an interim step an Intelligent Cities book will be published this fall. The volume will include essays from experts in the fields of technology and design, as well as observations culled from the website and a recent public forum.
At the conference last month, we thought about what the field of public history will look like in 2036. Three major themes emerged: a stronger commitment to sharing, or a throwing off entirely, professional authority; the integration of sustainability into our mission and activities; and a deeper interest in the work history can do in the world. The Intelligent Cities initiative is an example of how those trends can come together in one project.
For the first time, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. Historians have something to contribute to this topic, of course. Cities have alternatively been thought of as centers of ideas and hotbeds of crime – both the best and the worst that civilization has to offer. How have cities grown and changed over time? How do we want the cities of tomorrow to function? I’m pleased that the National Building Museum is leading the charge to discuss what this urban future might look like, getting input from as many corners as possible. History has work to do.
National Building Museum
401 F Street, NQ
Washington, DC 20001
What does history look like? In school, we learn to conceive of time in a linear fashion, using dates as coordinates to locate events and meaning in the past. “Cartographies of Time,” an exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum, explores the varied ways we have measured and mapped time visually. Timelines are relatively new, as it turns out. Francesco Bianchini, a 17th-century Italian philosopher and scientist, thought objects were preferable to dates; he saw chronology as a sort of cabinet of curiosities. Emma Willard created “The Temple of Time,” a drawing of an ancient Greek temple in which the base of each column is a century and notables from that century are listed along the shaft. This device helped the girls at her school memorize historical information by organizing those details in a three-dimensional architectural space.
The history of civilization, drawn to resemble several rivers flowing into a delta and then separating out again. (Friedrich Strass, Strom der Zeiten (Stream of Time), 1804. Cotsen Children's Library, Princeton University Library.)
If this show turns time, or at least our spatial understanding of it, on its head, a related exhibition “The Life and Death of Buildings,” explores how the arts can shape our collective memory of the past. This collection of photographs queries, again, what history looks like. Each photograph represents a single moment in the lifecycle of a building, offering the viewer a way to orient themselves in time. In one poignant scene, a photograph shows a group of women looking a little lost on a Manhattan street corner – a neighborhood building had been torn down overnight, altering the landscape of their daily life dramatically. Buildings can seem like permanent fixtures in the landscape, but these immovable edifices are also subject to the shifting winds of history.
Both exhibitions are part of “Memory and the Work of Art,” a yearlong collaborative effort from the Princeton University Art Museum and a slate of university and community partners, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. At the heart of the project is a lecture series – Maya Lin, among other distinguished speakers, is coming to campus to help explore the role of the arts in deciphering loss. The two shows will likely inform much of the conversation.
There are few direct references to 9/11 – the exhibitions, at least, are more of an oblique treatment of the relationship between time, memory, and loss. For me, this made piece about the death of buildings all the more powerful. Here, we are encouraged to consider the meaning we ascribe backwards into the past. Do the twin towers, in a photograph taken in the 1970s, look vulnerable?
Memory is a funny thing. It can play tricks on you – shift your perspective over time, soften one emotion and amplify another. And because memory shapes our understanding of the past, history is not static. In this season of remembrance, I find the words of curator Joel Smith especially important: “[History] is an ever-evolving narrative about what is gained and what is lost in the lives of civilizations.”
“Memory and the Work of Art,” A Princeton Community Collaboration
“Cartographies of Time,” through September 18, 2011.
“The Life and Death of Buildings,” through November 6, 2011.
At the Princeton University Art Museum
Princeton, NJ 08542
Civic engagement comes in different shapes and sizes. Last month, I wrote about how one museum uses its history and collections to incite visitors towards social action. There are quieter methods, too. I worked at a museum that co-hosted an annual event with a student group; in addition to the opportunity to see art after hours, it included yoga in the galleries, shoulder massages in the lobby, and goodwill all around. It was always a smashing success. Engaging the community can be about opening your doors and seeing what they might want to use your space for.If we’re looking for institutions that have found innovative ways to invite the community into their museum, the Delaware Art Museum shoots to the top of the list. Its Outlooks Exhibition Series “encourages community involvement in the creation of exhibitions that will be hosted by the Museum.” In the three years since the initiative has been in place, twelve shows have gone up. Exhibition themes have ranged from folk art, to modern ceramics, to juried shows with artworks from various community groups. In each case, the exhibition is proposed by an individual or group in the area, with the aim of representing a group, exploring a cultural identity, and/or focusing on a particular medium. Several shows have provided a space for area artists, often amateurs, to display their work.
Brian Joseph Repetti, Title: Cubistic Self Portrait (Created 2010). Lent by the artist, Delaware Art Museum.
The most recent exhibition, “Creativity Multiplied: Art Teachers of the Christina School District,” is a celebration of art educators. Eleven teachers exhibited 27 artworks, selected by an artist and former University of Delaware faculty member. The pieces are bright and lively, and taken as a whole they are a testament to the kind of creativity and inspiration these artists bring to the classroom.
It’s no small thing to involve the public in the work that you do. In the field of public history that practice is termed “shared authority,” and there is a reason the concept still pervades most discussions of community engagement. It can be hard to let community partners dictate some of the terms. In an art museum, exhibition development is the bread and butter of curatorial work. How do you successfully transfer some of that job to your audience, without losing your vision or sacrificing your quality standards? The Delaware Art Museum knocks it out of the park.
This week, Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 wrote about institutions with a public service perspective – museums that have transformed their mission and made their work about community-wide advocacy. For me, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in lower Manhattan is a model for civic engagement. This is the museum that inspired me, as a graduate student, to think outside the box of history museum offerings and consider the many ways a museum could contribute to social change.
The immediacy of those tenement apartments, interpreting the lives of Irish, German, Russian Jewish, and Italian immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, generates a feeling of pride and a connection with the American experience, the story of immigration. That sounds a bit simple, I know, but there is a quiet power to witnessing the recreated worlds of people that share the same struggles as you do – paying the bills, feeding a family, acclimating to new surroundings, finding work. This was the first place I toured where the dominant story was about the working class and the poor, and thus felt relevant to a broad audience.
The Tenement Museum could stop right there and I would be impressed by the quality of their research and interpretation. But, it doesn’t. Instead, the museum is committed to using history as a means to get at contemporary debates, namely immigration, and inspire community action on a range of issues. There are some who would find the phrase “using history” worrisome, but the Tenement Museum is living proof that you don’t have to choose between rock-solid scholarship and policy. (There are institutions which strike that balance poorly, but that’s a different story for a different day.)
Visitors participate in a Past & Present discussion at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. (Photo: Lower East Side Tenement Museum.)
In April, I was lucky enough to participate in a roundtable discussion about civility and civic engagement in public history practice with Lokki Chan, an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. In this current political climate, it can be hard to imagine people who disagree coming together to discuss the past and try to build upon some kind of shared experience. But that is exactly what the Tenement Museum’s dialogue program aims to do. Starting with a seemingly innocent question, “Where are you from?,” educators like Lokki work to deromanticize the past and complicate the present, making space for difficult dialogues about immigration today and in history. The program has been remarkably successful; in the past year alone, over 5,000 people have chosen tours with this discussion component and the responses have been overwhelming positive.
A perspective shift is an important goal. The museum also makes space for a different kind of engagement, through the “Agents for Change” initiative. In this section of the website, the museum highlights stories of community leaders, both historical and contemporary, who have brought about positive change in the community. The stories are meant to galvanize the reader into action; there are links and tips for pursuing similar goals in your own neighborhood. The initiative is bold and compelling.
For many of you, this love letter will feel familiar. But for those of you who haven’t yet been to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, or for those of you who are seeking out institutions where civic engagement has become part of the mission without cannibalizing their other goals, this post is for you. Now is as good a time as any – better even, as their new visitor’s center is slated to open soon – to visit and be inspired.
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
108 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002
As someone who works in the humanities, I occasionally find myself in the position of defending my line of work. Museums are places to admire the master works of our civilization and reflect upon our shared past, but I often feel a push to define our function in society in more immediately beneficial ways. We want to help solve problems and provide useful services to our diverse audience, as much as we want to promote a love and appreciation for the arts. That’s what civic engagement is all about, right?
I’ve long been interested in art museums that use their collections to teach visual literacy. The Yale Center for British Art, among others, uses paintings as a way to help medical students better diagnose patients. Both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection offer programs to help police hone the skills of observation for use in crime prevention or crime-solving. All of these initiatives convincingly demonstrate the need for sophisticated visual skills and the role art museums can play in developing that expertise.
Visual literacy can be useful to other populations, too. In December, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh held a workshop on making art accessible to people with dementia. This event brought together partners from the Pittsburgh Alzheimer’s Research Center and the Greater Pennsylvania Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, as well as museum professionals from the Museum of Modern Art’s pioneering program. (MoMA began offering programs for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers in 2004.) The Carnegie Museum used this workshop as a way to launch an expanded slate of tours, called “In the Moment,” which follows upon the heels of a successful pilot program.
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pa.
To create “In the Moment,” the Carnegie Museum worked closely with Woodside Place, a senior care facility in nearby Oakmont. Tours are offered monthly for residents and their caregivers; since May, tours are also available for individuals with early and middle-stage dementia who do not live in a residential care facility. Each tour includes discussions around 4-5 separate pieces of artwork in the Museum’s collections. The results have been stunning. Some works have stirred up long-term memories, allowing residents to engage with their own past in constructive ways. Participants have made connections between their experience and that of their peers, their caregivers, and the larger world – an occurrence that becomes less frequent as Alzheimer’s progresses. Because the entire premise of the tour is to talk about what you see, conversations and connections occur in a low-stakes environment. The pressure is off; what a relief for patients who need a respite from the frustrations of grasping at receding memories.
Art museums will always be places to encounter works of art. The opportunity to stroll through a gallery examining master techniques and pondering an artist’s meaning is a powerful experience. But, it’s not the only way to foster a connection with the arts. Museums are engaging new audiences in increasingly creative ways, constantly striving to be community institutions. With “In the Moment,” the Carnegie Museum of Art is being a good neighbor – responding to the needs of a local population and living up to the promise of accessibility and inclusion.
Carnegie Museum of Art
“In the Moment” tours offered on the second Tuesday of each month; Cost: $15/pair
4400 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
Every year for as long as I can remember, my family took a trip to the Bronx Zoo in the summer months. When the days get long and the weather is practically begging me to be outside as much as possible, I can’t help but continue that summertime zoo tradition.
The Bronx Zoo has come a long way from my visits as a child – the days of big cats in large cages, surrounding the sea lion pool at Astor Court. These charismatic felines have since been moved around the zoo; exhibits are now designed to represent the interconnectedness of a region’s ecosystem. The lions are on the African Plains, alongside storks and gazelle. The snow leopards can (sometimes) be spotted in the Himalayan Highlands; in addition to the cranes and red pandas, the exhibition space includes representations of Himalayan art. In the last fifteen years, the Bronx Zoo has transformed itself into a center for conservation and global environmental awareness.
The final exhibit panel at Tiger Mountain urges the visitor to action.
How do they do it? Tiger Mountain, opened in 2003, is an expanded habitat for the zoo’s Siberian tigers. It includes a large woodland living space, with a pool and plenty of space to observe tiger behaviors. The exhibit is more than just space for viewing the animals or learning about their diet and social habits, however. The zoo’s curators, while they have the rapt attention of their visitors, use the space to alert us to the status of tigers as endangered species. A map of the world shows the reduced range of the species; a second map illustrates the work the Bronx Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society are doing to protect tigers and their natural habitats in Asia. A complex model of a poacher’s truck is full of interactive features to teach kids and their families about the ways poachers capture, kill, and transport tiger products for the black market. The Zoo sparks excitement and imagination in kids and adults alike, AND engages the community in their larger mission.
Can museums inspire social action, too? I sometimes forget that zoos and museums have much to learn from each other. Yes, zoos have living collections and the whole range of perks and problems that come along with that, but we share a similar function as sites of informal learning. Our collections can inspire visitors to think about contemporary societal issues – and to take action. Zoos manage to leverage that ability unselfconsciously – it’s hard to imagine a zoo today that doesn’t encourage its audience to confront issues of shrinking rainforests, climate change, or poaching.
Does this encourage citizen action? As a kid, I remember telling my brother he couldn’t get that parrot he wanted; I had learned at the zoo that most parrots were products of the illegal trade in exotic wildlife. Tiger Mountain provides a few suggestions for getting involved in the fight to save wild tigers – choosing politicians who support wildlife conservation, for example. (There is always room for improvement; Nina Simon from Museum 2.0 talks about how museums can better incite their visitors to action here.) What the zoo does most successfully is raise awareness; I came away with a sense of my place in the global world, and how my behaviors can affect the environment around me.
In my experience, history museums in particular tend to shy away from this kind of activism. We should take a page from the zoo’s book and consider more opportunities to use our collections to encourage civic action.
2300 Southern Boulevard
Bronx, NY 10460
Open Monday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Weekends, 10am-5:30pm
There are exhibits, and then there are exhibits. You know the good ones right away – they make you think, they encourage you to spend more time with them than you were planning, they challenge your assumptions. As visitors, these are the experiences we remember; as professionals, these are the experiences we aim to create.
Last month, I was visiting the Boston Museum of Science and its special exhibition, “RACE: Are We So Different?” caught my interest right away, beckoning from across the hall while we played with probability in the Mathematica room. I was surprised (and pleased) to see an exhibition with a humanities bent in a science museum. I headed over and got lost, until the museum guard came around to remind us the museum was closing in fifteen minutes. It was one of those exhibits.
This week, the New York Times reported about multiracial college applicants and the ways in which they approach the race question on college applications. Today, there are many more options for defining one’s racial identity, yet students feel that checking a box, or a combination of boxes, does not always accurately reflect their identity. This is just one example of the impact of race, specifically race as a socially defined, and variable, category. RACE aims “to help individuals of all ages better understand the origins and manifestations of race and racism in everyday life by investigating race and human variation through the framework of science .”
"RACE: Are We So Different?" (Photo: American Anthropological Association)
The first few panels challenge received wisdom about the science behind skin color. Do darker skin tones protect against cancer? Can you easily identify people of different races through auditory cues? A quote from a geneticist reminds us, “Historically, the concept of race was imported into biology – from social practice.” The center portion of the exhibition is composed of a short history of race in America. I didn’t spend much time here; I was more interested in the way the designers leveraged science and contemporary public policy and statistics to tell a new story about the impact of prejudice based on skin color. Piles of cash, for example, were a striking visual representation of the wealth disparities among whites and other ethnic groups. The exhibit used lived experience very well. There were two video stations with individuals sharing their everyday experiences with race. Sepia tone portraits ran half the length of one wall; the subjects had written a caption about their racial identity – they were funny, poignant, and real.
In one corner of the exhibition space was a contemporary photograph of a group of people. Each person was wearing a white t-shirt with black lettering. The lettering on the shirts said “Free white” or “Mexican” or “Mulatto”; the shirts also had a date, corresponding to the year in which the racial category on their shirt was used in the census. Each individual had three categories on their shirt, highlighting the drastic changes in official U.S. conceptions of race over time. The exhibit label asks “Why do we have race on the census, anyway?” Or, as the New York Times story reminds us, how can we make space for the varied ways in which individuals identify themselves? Brazil, for example, has over 100 commonly used racial descriptors.
RACE was developed by the American Anthropological Association, with the Science Museum of Minnesota in 2007. It began its run there and has been on a national tour since. If you haven’t had the opportunity to see it yet, it begins a six-month-long stint at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC starting this Saturday (June 16). It is an important exhibition, one that challenges historical notions about race with a mix of history, science, and personal experience. The combination is powerful, and not to be missed. The exhibit demonstrates that race is not based in scientific fact, but is instead a cultural construct – understood variably in different times and different places. I think many of us know this already, but the exhibition’s commitment to using scientific studies as proof of the social, rather than biological, roots of race and racism is successful. Cultural constructs are deeply affecting, however, and the exhibit also shows that while race does not have a scientific basis, racism has been a defining force in America.
It is not every day that a museum exhibition prompts you to reexamine your ideas and to engage deeply with your place in the community. We tend to think of exhibitions as passive, with the accompanying events and programs as the real opportunities for curators and experts to host discussions about the material. But really, exhibitions are programs, too. They allow us to interact with, and digest, the ideas and concepts on our own terms. If done well, they ask the us to share our opinions. And, since many of us visit museums with friends or family members, the conversations an exhibition can provoke are programs in miniature. It’s a different, but no less powerful, form of civic engagement.
RACE: Are We So Different?
At the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History through January 1, 2012.
10th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20560
Open 10am-5:30pm daily.
This season marks the fifth year of an urban farming experiment at Wyck Historic House and Gardens. The 18th-century homestead, located in the heart of upper Germantown in Philadelphia, has been a museum since the early 1970s. With the help of an extensive collection of artifacts and documents, the house relates three hundred years of history – the daily trials and tribulations of one family of Philadelphia Quakers. Except it hasn’t always been clear who’s listening.
Historic houses are struggling. Many of us don’t feel connected to the house on the hill; our ancestors came in through the servant’s entrance, if they entered at all. We want museums to be relevant, to connect to our own lives and experiences. That can be a tall order, of course (and maybe one that some historians feel uncomfortable serving), but the staff at Wyck knew they could find a way to interpret history and build a stronger relationship with their visitors at the same time.
Children from an area Head Start program get their hands dirty at the Wyck Home Farm." (Photo by Wyck Historic House and Garden)
The Wyck Home Farm was born. In the face of a growing movement to eat local foods and support sustainable farming practices, many historic sites have been embracing their agricultural past and exploring the farm as a rich interpretive arena. But few have expanded upon that idea in the way that Wyck has. By developing a small urban farm in Germantown, Wyck is providing a crucial service to its neighbors. The Home Farm is both an agricultural and an educational space. The weekly farmer’s market – Fridays throughout the summer (starting this Friday!) if you’d like to stop by and pick up some local produce – is one of the only local options for fresh fruits and vegetables. When I visited last August, women were appraising late-summer tomatoes while their kids waited impatiently to visit the chickens. This neighborhood is particularly in need of such a service; there is no supermarket within walking distance and access to healthy foods is limited. Wyck ensures that the products it sells are accessible to everyone, both by controlling price and by encouraging conversations about creativity in the kitchen. The Home Farm allows the staff to work with the local community to address issues of nutrition and equitable access to fresh foods.
The farmer’s market is only one piece of the Home Farm’s mission. Wyck’s most vibrant school programs are now about nutrition and growing food. The farm is a sort-of laboratory where kids raised in urban environments can begin to make sense of the path food takes from the field to their lunchbox.
And, it doesn’t end there. The house is open for visitors to wander through after they do their shopping at the farmer’s market. The kitchen and pantry are a particularly popular area; visitors can see an excerpt from an early receipt book and get a glimpse of the family’s 19th century china. In this way, the history of these distant Quakers seems less remote. Even if we can’t relate to their religious beliefs, or their political passions, or their community status, we can all understand the struggle to feed a family. And once that common ground is established, the door is open for public historians to find creative ways to tell the rest of the story. Wyck has managed to enhance the site’s history by renewing its agricultural past in a way that is relevant today.
What struck me (well, in addition to the black raspberries I couldn’t wait to get into my kitchen) was the atmosphere. On market days, the double lot – a full block of Germantown Avenue – feels a bit like a county fair. People are wandering through, swapping recipes, ogling the harvest, and making a connection between their kitchen and the efforts of farmers, from the earliest Quaker residents to the 21st century farm crew. Here is an 18th century property brought back to life by an urban community.
Wyck Historic House and Gardens
6026 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19144
Admission: $5/$4 senior citizens
Guided Tours: Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, 1-4 p.m. from April 1 to December 15.
Home Farm: Fridays, 1-4 p.m., May 27, 2011 through early November.
Gardens and Grounds: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. year-round.